It is early in the morning. In the light of our headlamps we climb out of bed. It wasn’t late last night, but the discussion was long and thoroughly. How to continue? Where to go and how? We are aware of our lack of options and, even worse, of our lack of information. This morning we get up to see what will happen. We try our luck. As the sun rises and live in the city begins to rumble, we leave the catholic mission and set out for Lisala.
What we do not know yet, we will not reach this town until two days later. In a good mood and with positive feelings, we reach the main road leading to Lisala. We assume that road means traffic and Bumba and Lisala have a decent size to populate the road with goods and people. A small hint we received the day before was that along this road, there should be a truck depot. We keep on walking and walking. Even after we leave the city and we cross a small river, we cannot find it. The temperature is raising steadily and the backpacks on our back start getting heavy. At a small market we decide to take a break. Immediately chairs are offered, we refuse but a sales lady insists and we sit down. By now, the market is aware of our presence and a crowd of people is gathering around us, burning holes in our bodies with their eyes.
Every movement is countered with sheer interest and out of the crowd helpful figures arise. They start proposing options, but our goal is to get a cheap ride on a truck or pickup. I return to the city, accompanied by two boys on bicycles, to find the ominous truck depot.
I am out of luck and apparently the trucks already left the town for today. If there are truck tomorrow? Maybe. I evaluate the option of renting a jeep. I soon stop this undertaking. It’s insanely expensive. Back at the market, I join the others; waiting. Within six hours only six cars and trucks pass, but they are only going to the next village and not all the way. We abort this try.
Without a plan we move back at the mission. In the afternoon we walk through the city, to the airport and then to the harbor. We figure, with a plane in one week time, we might as well try to catch another boat to Lisala. Our captain from the previous days already checked two options for us and as the first option is a white person rip off with 40 US dollar per person for a 10 dollar ride, I stay out of sight at the second option and the captain gets us a price of 11 US dollar per person to Lisala.
We agree and are happy to leave the city the next afternoon. „Afternoon“ is defined quite loosely and at 8 o’clock in the evening, the three pirogues, tied together to a big boot, set out to go downstream.
This time the journey is an overnight ride. Uncomfortable placed between goods and other passengers, we sleep in plastic chairs. We fear the worst, as the engines stop, but an hour later they are running again and continue. 110 kilometers down the river, we reach Lisala in the early morning hours. Our friends of the DGM already waiting for us. We register and are brought to the supervising officer for a short talk. By now, I know what they are looking for: a nice chat and presents. It’s a game and I definitely know the rules by now.
Like Bumba, Lisala features nice heritage from the colonial times. Old shops, alleys and a great church.
We are here now and face the same problems again. We want to go to Gemena now, but there are no trucks heading this way. We check the option to book a flight from Lisala via Gemena to Mbadanka, but from the day before to today, the prices shoot through the roof. Two jeep options are equally insane: three to five US Dollars per kilometer. The car has to go 700 kilometers. We decline nicely and take a break. I quench my thirst at the hotel and set out to the harbor again to check for cheaper options. I am surprised, that my camera is welcomed in town and I use this chance to take some pictures.
At the harbor I see three trucks being loaded. The driver offers me help to get us to Gemena. He promises to take us 200 kilometers north and then organize us some motorbikes to continue the same day to Gemena. It feels like a relief to know how to continue.
In the late afternoon Dieu, the driver, comes by the hotel again to confirm he ride again and around 11 at night. We take our seats in the back of the cabin. The front windows of the truck are missing and I see my fortune in sitting on the hard metal cover of the engine, which provides me with floor heating. It is freezing cold as we drive through the night. I try to close my eyes, but as the truck rumbles over the road, sleeping is a distant prospect.
My uncomfortable metal plate below me and my backpack as a backrest force me in a crouching position and allow me almost no way to look out of the window. At one point at night, I manage to free a sleeping mattress from one of the backpacks and my comfort improves impressively. As our massage continues for hours, we pass through small villages, cross wooden bridges and face the spite of all-wheel power trains. Just after sunrise our truck comes to an stop at the foot of a small hill. The engine is still running, but we have no power to climb the hill. Something is wrong.
We become the attraction of the nearby village as Dieu and the driver of the other truck behind us work ambitiously to get the fuel injection working again. Mechanics on the road! They get it working again. Old French technology proves to be robust enough to find their way through the jungle.
We pass the last bridge to Businga, where our truck ride ends. As Dieu promised he organizes us three motorbikes and leaves us behind in this small town.
As it turns out, just as he leaves, the drivers pull the „white-man-is-rich-card“ and ask for more money. We are stuck and a three hour struggle begins. I try to do my best to negotiate and to calm them down. Their unreasonable price is making me angry. They just say a number and stick with it. It doesn’t matter what arguments you bring, they do not stick to their original price of 50 US dollar. It is noon, when our entourage sets out. The battle for money, exchanging it, buying and distributing fuel and waiting for them to get ready and show of with us is unbearable. Some older villagers calm us down and we leave the village. The first stretch of road is in decent condition. To good to drive slow and to bad to feel save without helmet on a rocky, dusty and sometimes dusty road.
It seems forever to pass the first 20 kilometers of the 160 ahead of us. Soon the road turns into a motocross track. Holes that could swallow a whole bike need to be navigated around and the road turns so bad, that we even think of jumping on a truck that we just passed, just to feel saver. Now one of the drivers even begins to drink alcohol. I watch the first sip, look angry at the second and as he continues I become furious. I take his bottle and store it for him. He will get it back after they dropped us of and he will only kill himself.
We reach Karawa. The town in the middle and we stop for lunch break. As I stay with the bikes to watch my backpack and to get a little bit of peace in my mind, the others go with the drivers in a small restaurant. I am tired. The boat ride from Bumba to Lisala brought a short night with it, yesterday, I chased through Lisala in search of a hotel, of internet, of a flight and at last for a mode of transport. My head is full of bits and pieces of negotiations and translating into French gives me no break. I buy myself a cold drink and sit down at the crossroad in the center of the town. The market square ahead of me with some small shops lined along the street. Some trucks come and stop as well. They are so fully packed, I do not even make the attempt to ask them where they are going. One of our drives finds me in my standby state and tells me, that my travelmates have some discussion with DGM. As this situation happened often before, I decide that they can handle it without translator. I am not aware that the discussion took a wrong turn, as my driver tried to protect them and asked the officer to wait until they finished eating. I know not more, but I assume that because the official was in plain cloth with no badge at all, my driver might has used some stronger language than necessary, not aware of the person’s status. A few minutes later one of the driver urges me to go and check. I get taken to an office and the DGM officer explains me the situation. We should pay 10 US Dollar and fill out a form. Official reason: we crossed the province border without a visa. My experience from former discussion tells me, I don’t have to fill out a form and that no money needs to change the sides of the table. I stick with my basic rule. This situation could have resolved very fast and easy by us paying. But I am not susceptible to blackmail. I will not open this box of the Pandora and support this. Who knows, maybe he finds more reasons later to ask for more. So I tell him, what I know, what I think and about my experiences with other officers. After almost an hour he lets us go. The price I pay for this. My driver ends up at the police station, arrested for assaulting an police officer. The game starts again. After short discussions, I leave all my valuables with my travelmates, no passport I could loose, no money they could take, and walk to the police station. I calmly propose an apology from my driver to the officer to settle the deal fast and easy. I still have in mind to reach Gemena the same day. The judge appears, the head of police and the verbally „assaulted“ DGM officer. Sitting on plastic chairs in the green front yard of the police station the DGM official requests 50 dollars for forgetting about this. I ask to have a rule by the judge, but he says nothing. With no knowledge of Congolese law, I withdraw from the discussion. With my travelmates, we decide to pay the drivers until Karawa, give them a tip and look for a new driver. We assure them, that we want to continue with them and we walk of direction Gemena. Unreachable by foot but a symbolic gesture. Half an hour later we are back on the bikes and tackle the last peace of road.
Soon it becomes dark and the ride gets even more unpleasant. Around 8 we arrive in Gemena, first we struggle to find a place to sleep as the two catholic missions are too expensive and even booked out, but then we find a sleazy hotel with room for us.
The advantage of the hotel, they love soccer and we can even watch German soccer games, while the generator runs longer and we finally have a chance to fully charge our batteries again. As last thing before going to bed, we go into the city center to find a cold drink. We earned it!
Crossing Congo – The moving Perspective
Crossing Congo – The Series:
Part 1 – Heartland
Part 2 – The East
Part 3 – Glowing Earth
Part 4 – Majestic Gorillas
Part 5 – The Flying Whistle
Part 6 – The Stream
Part 7 – Jungle Bumps
Part 8 – Equator Rocks
Part 9 – Capital Walks
Can’t wait for more?
Check out the German series of „Crossing Congo„!